digital photography tips with Digital Photo Mentor Darlene Hildebrandt

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White balance what is it, how to use it?

White balance settings are something new to the digital photography era, but color temperature is not.  Today we're going to explore a few things about white balance, color temperature and how to adjust the settings to your advantage.

Light has Different Colors

Full color spectrum light is composed of different ranges of color tones.  You can see this by using a prism and shining a bright light through it. What happens?  It breaks the light apart into different colors so you can see each individually.  That same thing happens when it rains and you see a rainbow. Those colors are always there, they are normally just combined into the visible light spectrum and our eyes see it as white or color neutral.

Our eyes also naturally adjust for color changes, just like they do when we go from outdoors where it's bright, to indoors where it's dark.  The human body is a sophisticate device and our eyes make those adjustments in seconds and we barely notice.  The same happens with color of light. Our cameras however do see the colors so we have to adjust our settings to account for different lighting conditions and the colors they produce.

Color Temperature

The different colors of light are generally referred to as the color temperature and just like Fahrenheit and Centigrade it is represented by a scale in degrees, in this case degrees Kelvin.  You may have noticed a funny setting on your camera called “K” – we'll come back to that a bit later, but that's what it represents.

Kelvin numbers are derived from heating a “blackbody radiator”, think of it like a cast iron pot, until it glows. Just like a flame the red and orange glow is actually lower temperature and the hotter the flame or pot gets the bluer it gets.  So at the bottom of the Kelvin scale is red at the top is blue.  It looks like this:

Kelvin temperature scale
Kelvin temperature scale

Setting White Balance on your Camera

You will not find a “color temperature” setting anywhere on your camera, what you need to look for is “White Balance”.  Your camera will likely have several presets to select the color temperature for each situation you encounter.  Commonly they are:  shade, incandescent, fluorescent, daylight (or sunlight), cloudy, custom and Auto or AWB.  This is where the camera will assess the scene and set the color for you.   This is usually acceptable but selecting the right option for your situation may give you a nicer, more pleasing color to your images.

To find your White Balance settings you can look in your menu, or there me be a shortcut one touch button somewhere on your camera.  Check the manual so see where to find the settings.

Once you've found the options choose the one that best represents your scene.  As per the color scale above you'll see similar options represented by funny little icons below.

White Balance icons for Canon (left) and Nikon (right)
White Balance icons for Canon (left) and Nikon (right)

Getting off Auto

As with most settings on your camera you want to eventually try and transition from using mostly Automatic settings which let the camera choose the options, to ones where you are making the choices. Ultimately it's about control over the look of your final images. If you're a recovering control freak like me, you'll want to have as much control as possible, so learning the options and what they do will allow you to take control.

What the Preset options above are actually doing is filtering out or neutralizing the color of light present in your scene. For example, the following image was taken at a Medieval festival I attended recently. The suit of armor is silver/grey so you know it should be a neutral color and makes a good white balance test.  Let's look at what happens if I shoot it at all the various White Balance presets.

This was done with Auto White Balance, not bad but can we do better?
This was done with Auto White Balance, not bad but can we do better?
Tungsten setting - uh no! See what it's doing?  It's adding a blue filter to counter the orange light that comes from tungsten bulbs.  Look at the Kelvin scale above to see where Tungsten falls.
Tungsten setting – uh not so good right?!

See what it's doing? It's adding a blue filter to counter the orange light that comes from regular household tungsten bulbs. Look at the Kelvin scale above to see where Tungsten falls. It's at the bottom of the scale in the orange/yellow range. So to make your photo neutral under that type of light the camera applies the opposite color which is blue.

Shade white balance, notice how yellow it is now?
Shade white balance, notice how yellow it is now?

In the image above the Shade setting is now counter acting shooting in the shade which is where on the scale?  In the blue range. So the opposite of blue is yellow.

Fluorescent white balance
Fluorescent white balance (WB)

Above you see Fluorescent White Balance, that is pretty close to the type of lighting that was in this scene.  It also depends on the type of bulb as fluorescent comes in many varieties. I found this one to be pretty good so this is the setting I I used to shoot the image.

When to use Auto (AWB) or Custom White Balance

If you have mixed light sources, such as tungsten light inside and some daylight from a window – then select AWB (auto white balance) and it will do a pretty good job of balancing them. You can also choose to set a custom balance. The short description of how to do that is:  take a photo of something neutral (a white paper or a grey card) and tell the camera “use this as neutral” using the custom White Balance settings.  Each camera is different, once again you'll need to consult your manual on how to do custom white balance.

The Benefit of Shooting RAW file format

If you're a regular reader of the website you'll know that I use Lightroom to process my images and I shoot RAW file format in camera. For more on why you'd want to shoot raw read:  Why Shoot in Raw format.

One of the huge benefits of shooting in RAW is that you can make adjustments to the White Balance in your image editor just like you can in camera. Here's a screen shot from inside Lightroom that shows the pull down menu for White Balance.

Notice I have all the same options as in camera
Notice I have all the same options for White Balance as in camera

Compare that to the limited options you see using a JPG shown below. If you use the wrong White Balance and end up with a very off color image it's very hard to correct from a JPG. RAW – no problem!

Limited White Balance settings when working with JPGs
Limited White Balance settings when working with JPGs

Using White Balance creatively

So far we've just talked about making the White Balance “correct” or using it to neutralize any color cast from the lighting. But did you know you can also adjust your White Balance to change the look of your final image on purpose?

When might you wanna do you ask?

Here's a few examples:

  • sunsets (to add orange and make the colors more vibrant try Shade setting)
  • snow or winter scenes (to make it more blue and cold feeling try Tungesten setting)
  • outdoors in the daytime (use cloudy or shade) it will give you warmer skin tones and people will look a bit more tanned than using the Daylight setting

Getting the idea? Once you know how the settings work and what they are doing, you can use them to your creative advantage.

There's one more setting I mentioned earlier, the mysterious K option. Take another look at the Kelvin scale above. Now do into your camera White Balance settings and choose the K or Kelvin option if your camera has this option. It will give you the ability to dial in virtually any number on that scale and control the color anywhere along that range. Can you see now how that might be useful?

Take the examples in the list just above like the sunset.  In the image below I took that to extremes and pushed the colors way beyond what was actually there in the scene. I could push it over the top because it's a sunset and the only thing in the scene is silhouetted in darkness so its color isn't correct you can't even tell. The sky was just sort of drab and dull, I added color when I shot it using K and more color using the adjustments to my raw file in Lightroom later. Unfortunately I can't find the original, this is from 2005 actually and I'd have to dig through archived backup DVDs.

Color adjusting using K setting and camera raw in Lightroom later
Color adjusting using K setting and camera raw in Lightroom later

Action Plan

I'd love to hear how you use White Balance creatively and share some of your images. Tell me if you learned something now and how you will apply it. Do you feel more confident moving off Auto White Balance?

Until next time!


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